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I watch movies. On DVD, at the theater, via cable TV. Sometimes I want people to know what I think about the movies I watch, regardless of whether or not they care. I promise I will make my reviews short, but I won't be ashamed to throw around cliches like "beautiful cinematography" and "post-modern irony," so be warned.

Sunday, October 12, 2008 :::

The Happening

Why I saw it: M. Night intrigues me still.

What I think about it: I refuse to fall into the now-common conception that M. Night was a one-hit wonder (with his breakout movie The Sixth Sense). I firmly believe that Signs was a brilliantly-crafted movie, in spite of the final five ridiculous minutes. And I really enjoyed The Village, even if it totally abandoned any sense of logic whatsoever. Granted, Lady in the Water was truly horribly bad bad awful terrible, but I know that M. Night can be very masterful when it comes to building suspense and manipulating tone.

That being said, The Happening sucked. The premise is actually pretty inspired, but the way the movie unfolds and devolves into stupid cliche and unrealistic exposition can be attributed to nothing more than absolutely terrible, unforgivably bad screenwriting. There are some creepy scenes, for sure, but they are far outnumbered by the ridiculous ones, which are themselves far outnumbered by the utterly unconvincing ones. Plus, the emotion that the director tries to wrench out of the forced ending is not earned or backed-up with enough character development, and therefore it comes off as eye-rollingly silly. And finally, the acting is abysmal, presumably because the source material as written could never be realistically portrayed.

M. Night is a talented director. He really is. He's also a terrible screenwriter. He really really really needs to find a writing partner to help hone his admittedly intriguing story ideas. Someone who can slap his hand when he tries to get too heavy-handed or sloppily sentimental or when he totally ignores all sense of logic as long as it benefits his lazy plotting. And he needs to stop believing his own hype for long enough to realize that.

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::: posted by dan at 5:13 PM :: #

Burn After Reading

Why I saw it: The Coen Brothers

What I think about it: The latest Coen Brothers movie is about mistaken identity, fumbling espionage, and dim-witted criminals who are all intertwined in a comically trumped-up conspiracy where no single character is ever allowed to be enlightened to the bigger picture, which unfortunately seems to mine a lot of the same territory as many previous (and more successful) Coen Brothers movies.

Similarly to how they structured their first movie Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers like to push dramatic irony to its limit and clue the audience in on what none of the characters in the movie will ever discover. It can be involving and enjoyable to watch how characters bound by fate and the consequences of their own idiocy fumble around trying to clean up messes they don't understand, but Burn After Reading isn't nearly twisty or clever enough to really draw you into its madness, and since it's presented more like a comedy than a thriller (as opposed to Blood Simple) it never really builds up enough tension to keep you involved either.

I remember being exhilarated by the ending of Blood Simple, when the audience knows exactly what has transpired but the characters are left totally in the dark, while the one man who has all the answers dies underneath a drippy bathroom sink. But the same concept doesn't have the same affect in Burn After Reading. In fact, the end result is more frustrating than fascinating.

As in any Coen Brothers movie, there a few inspired moments and reveals. Plus, it's got a great cast of actors creating some truly memorable characters, but they rarely get a chance to rise above their rather shallow characterizations. And I think that the filmmakers make a few wrong moves with which ones they decide to kill off, resulting in a tone that seems more nihilistic than thought-provoking.

Don't get me wrong, it's FAR better than a few of the Coen Brother's other recent meanderings like Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers (with the exception of the exciting No Country for Old Men and the absolutely brilliant and incomparable Fargo), but it's still a rather mediocre addition to their oeuvre.

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::: posted by dan at 4:27 PM :: #

Tropic Thunder

Why I saw it: When done right, I like stupid movies. Even Zoolander.

What I think about it: There's nothing really unexpected in this new Ben Stiller comedy. Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. are both fun to watch and Ben Stiller plays the same dim-witted character he's so great at playing. Goofy things happen and you laugh a few times. If you're expecting anything more than that, you'll be disappointed.

It's basically a Hollywood satire with a few war movie parodies thrown in, which begs the broad analogy that making a movie can be a little like warfare. I'm not much for the war genre, so I think I actually prefer the fashion world setting of Zoolander, but I would say that Tropic Thunder is still enjoyable enough. It's one of those movies that you wouldn't mind getting stuck watching on TV while aimlessly flipping through the channels on a Sunday afternoon. You might even be excited to come across it repeatedly. And you probably will someday.

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::: posted by dan at 3:48 PM :: #

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Why I saw it: I like Sydney Lumet and I love Philip Seymour Hoffman

What I think about it: Even though the general crime drama plotline is nothing new, and even though it features a fractured timeline which has been done to death in this genre (to the point of cliche), Before the Devil Knows Your Dead is a fascinating, albiet slow-moving showcase for some really great acting, particularly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is slowly becoming my all-time favorite.

The fractured timeline may help to make the fairly rote plot to seem more exciting or fresh, but the plot doesn't really matter here, because this movie is all about tone and character, and it handles both to perfection. Its pace helps it build up an incredible amount of tension and the release at the end is considerable.

My only real complaint is that for a movie that seems to begin as an ensemble crime drama about an entire family spectacularly destroying themselves, the last half of the movie focuses a little too heavily on just two of the main characters, which left me feeling a little unresolved about what eventually happened to the rest of the family. But still, this movie is what most critics would call "gripping", and I would tend to agree. It's also depressing, grim, bleak, and pessimistic, with a real gut-punch of an ending. Hooray for Hollywood!

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::: posted by dan at 12:44 PM :: #

Sweeney Todd

Why I saw it: I'll give any Tim Burton movie a shot.

What I think about it: It's a well-made, well-acted, well-sung, well-directed, slick and shiny adaptation of the gruesome stage musical of the same name. Yet the subject matter is so unappealing that it's impossible for me to really say that I "enjoyed" it. Plus, any underlying lesson or moral about the futility of revenge is deftly sidestepped in favor of the admittedly-brilliant production and unforgettable visuals, which only serves to take all the bite out of the underlying story. It's incredibly well-made, but somehow that didn't translate into being enjoyable to watch for me, and I think it missed a few golden opportunities to make any sort of a point or to satirically parallel our modern times. Oh well. "A" for effort for sure, but I'd rather never have to see it again.

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::: posted by dan at 12:28 PM :: #

The Darjeerling Limited

Why I saw it: I still like some of the director's earlier movies.

What I think about it: I still maintain my position that Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums are two of the finest movies of the last decade. Sure, they aren't going to change the world or the face of cinema, but they are fun, quirky, absorbing, and interesting. But I have to admit that the schtick is getting a little tired. The director's most recent movies, such as The Life Aquatic, are showy but empty, and even though The Darjeerling Limited tries to stretch into deeper territory at times, it never quite makes it there.

Basically, I'm getting old, and I don't like to waste my time on pure "quirk" anymore. There needs to be underlying poignancy or resonating character development or relevant purpose to support the quirk, or what's the point? Rushmore had characters that evolved and grew. Tennenbaums had true emotional resonance buried under its topical whimsy. But The Darjeerling Limited has nothing but unlikable characters who are surprisingly impossible to identify with as they stumble across a claustrophobic, emotionless landscape. Sure, the trademark quirkiness may temporarily keep your attention, but the film will evaporate soon after you "leave the theater".

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::: posted by dan at 12:14 PM :: #

Southland Tales

Why I saw it: I loved Donnie Darko.

What I think about it: Critics said this movie was a mess. Fans said this movie was a mess. The word on the film festival circuit was that this movie was a mess. But for some reason I still refused to believe that it could be the mess that everyone was claiming it was. You see, Donnie Darko was all over the board, too, but still somehow seemed cohesive and fascinating in a puzzling solve-it-yourself kind of way. Before I saw it, I was sure that everyone who didn't like Southland Tales just wasn't "getting" it. But regrettably, Southland Tales is indeed just a big sloppy mess after all.

The pseudo-futuristic plot would be almost impossible to summarize, but it's not solely the plotting the destroys the movie, it's the direction and the editing: 1) The constant shift in tone that served Donnie Darko so well falls flat on its face here, 2) The convoluted story, which holds a lot of promise for the first half of the film, sabotages itself and dives headfirst into murky territory during the last half, 3) The Rock proves that he is an awful actor no matter how you want to interpret his "performance", and the rest of the actors seem to be unsure of what kind of movie they are starring in, and 4) By the time the anticlimactic resolution rears its ugly head, the wheels have already come off. In fact, the whole machine has entirely disintegrated.

It's pretty and full of ideas, of course. But someone needs to reign in Richard Kelly, because he's got too much promise to waste.

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::: posted by dan at 12:01 PM :: #

Sex and the City

Why I saw it: I liked the show on HBO.

What I think about it: Unfortunately, I have a feeling that most people's exposure to Sex and the City comes from the butchered reruns they play on network TV these days that not only edit out most of the raunchy content, but also shorten each episode by almost ten minutes, which severely affects the quality. The original HBO series started out like a lark of "girls talking dirty" but quickly evolved into something more endearing. Even if you thought that the girls were annoying or that Sarah Jessica Parker looked like a horse, you had to admit that it was a smart, well-written series from beginning to end.

The movie is more of the same. It's funny and bawdy and raunchy and endearing, but it's regrettably built on a boring, predictable, drawn-out premise about cold feet at a wedding. Plus, I felt like each character had already completed the perfect arch at the close of the actual series, so this add-on felt a little superfluous. But still, it's undeniably entertaining along the way, and it admittedly feels good to see what's going on in these girls' lives. So if you like the show, you will like the movie. If you don't like the show, it's honestly because you've never given it the chance it deserves. It's more than it appears to be to the naked, judgmental, homophobic, insecure male eye. If you've never seen the show, you'll probably wonder what all the fuss was about, because this movie is really more about catching up with old friends than it is about discovering something new.

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::: posted by dan at 11:47 AM :: #

Sunday, June 08, 2008 :::

Feast of Love

Why I saw it: I liked a couple of the director's previous movies.

What I think about it: This movie, which chronicles the ups and downs of various intertwining couples, isn't even worth summarizing. It's derivative, boring, useless, predictable, and meandering. It has nothing new to say, and no new ways to say it, except perhaps a shallow justification for infidelity, which is akin to something like "it's okay to cheat as long as you eventually end up with the one that you are fated for," or on the flip side, "Don't worry if you get cheated on because that just means you obviously weren't meant to be with that person." It's the definition of forced sentimental drivel. I hesitated even wasting the time to review it.

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::: posted by dan at 10:36 PM :: #

The Mist

Why I saw it: I used to like the short story by Stephen King on which it is based.

What I think about it: Although this tale about a town enshrouded in a mysterious mist that is inhabited by a bevy of creepy-crawlies is effectively dread-inducing and disturbingly vivid, it also relies much too heavily on cliche and contrivance. Marcia Gay Harden does a good job inhabiting the religious zealot persona, unfortunately the character is so clearly cliched and unrealistic that the resulting plot contrivances of her character's story arch are completely unconvincing. And the mean-old-neighbor character portrayed by Andre Braugher is even worse, since the story does not provide a strong enough back story to justify his stubborn idiocy. It's bad when the characters in a monster movie feel more false and forced than the actual computer-generated monsters. Plus, the ending, a departure from the source material, is so unforgivingly nihilistic that you begin to wonder what point the filmmakers are trying to make, and the moral of the story gets foggier than the mist itself. Some people might call that daring. I call it sloppy and pointless.

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::: posted by dan at 10:23 PM :: #

The Savages

Why I saw it: I like the actors and the director.

What I think about it: It's a funny and depressing look at the realities and unpleasantries of old age and death, and the way real people deal with these difficult issues. Told through the viewpoint of a semi-dysfunctional brother and sister, who have plenty of their own issues to deal with, what sets this movie apart from other recent dysfunctional-family movies is the brilliant acting by the two main leads, a clear avoidance of over-sentimentalization, and a careful attention to detail and nuance. The resulting movie feels emotionally authentic and perfectly portrayed. Plus, the ending is about as feel-good as they come - in the real world.

Learn more about it.

::: posted by dan at 10:12 PM :: #

No End In Sight

Why I saw it: It was nominated for an Oscar

What I think about it: It's maddening, frustrating, infuriating, and everything else you would expect from a documentary about the Iraq war. It's also hard to judge, because the interviewees are all disgruntled participants and reporting like this is always speculative and subjective. I'm not saying I don't believe them or the color of the resulting portrait that the movie paints, I'm just saying that it's not going to convince anyone who REALLY needs to be convinced, and those people's numbers are dwindling anyway. Hopefully. Still, it was well made and intensely watchable.

Learn more about it.

::: posted by dan at 10:07 PM :: #

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Why I saw it: Duh.

What I think about it: Before its release, I heard some bad rumblings on the Internet about this fourth installment of the popular series (of which I have always been a major fan). I dismissed the poor reviews based on the concept that people expect more out of action movies these days. The old charms of Raiders of the Lost Ark can't really compete with today's specials effects and action extravaganzas to those with short attention spans. I figured these reviews were just coming from young kids who were expecting Transformers-level eye candy, but I think I judged the critics too harshly, because this movie is clearly the worst of the series. Its jumbled plot and surprising lack of charm are sinful to say the least, and forgive me for saying it, but no matter how much they want to try to convince people otherwise, it's just not as fun watching old, unsexy people stumbling through rehashed 1950's set-pieces which seem entirely uncomfortable and out of place for Indy. I don't think this is a franchise that can survive an "update".

On the flip side, the killer ants were cool, but I never ever ever want to see the Tarzan scene again in my entire life. Of course, it's probably impossible not to be disappointed by this movie, considering the history it has to live up to.

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::: posted by dan at 9:57 PM :: #

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Why I saw it: I heard it was funny from the critics.

What I think about it: A guy gets dumped when his girlfriend gets semi-famous and trades up for a smarmy rock star. A supposedly-cathartic trip to Hawaii to get over her becomes an exercise in awkwardness when all parties accidentally end up in the same hotel. Hilarity ensues. I know this movie is somehow associated with the entourage and experts behind Superbad, 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, yadda yadda, and I liked all of them to some extent, but I actually enjoyed this one more than most. Superbad was a combination of sweetly cute and violently profane - a creepy mixture which made me a tad nauseous - and Knocked Up was little more than a paper thin plot to hang dirty jokes on, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall was able to be profane without making me blush, cute without creeping me out, and funny without relying on a tired old plot. It's a good, solid comedy with nice likable people, which makes me comfortable to recommend it whole-heartedly.

Learn more about it.

::: posted by dan at 9:42 PM :: #

Baby Mama

Why I saw it: I like Tina Fey.

What I think about it: I was under the impression this was a Tina Fey project, meaning she had some involvement in its creation or screenplay. I was mistaken. It's not a terrible movie, but it's pretty derivative and lacking in much originality. The surrogate mother plot isn't even worth getting into. The only thing it really has going for it is the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy combo, and even that isn't really used to its fullest potential. Granted, I laughed out loud a few times during certain rare inspired moments like the bit about sustained eye contact as a reward and a couple other one-liners. And the Sigourney Weaver character is a hoot, and I never use the word "hoot". But still, this movie is meant for Cable TV.

Learn more about it.

::: posted by dan at 9:34 PM :: #

Sunday, March 16, 2008 :::

Inland Empire

Why I saw it: I've acquired a liking for David Lynch.

What I think about it: For the majority of filmgoers, watching Inland Empire is going to be three solid hours of "WTF?!?"

For people familiar with the previous works of David Lynch, there will still be plenty of that, yet there will also be many nods of recognition and appreciation for this melange of deconstructive surrealistic film experiments that almost plays like a David Lynch highlight reel. There is no useful point in describing the plot and I couldn't even begin to apply meaning to it all, but basically you are either in the mood for this kind of mindf*ck or you are not. I was somewhere in between. I appreciated certain elements of Inland Empire and marveled at many of the unforgettable sights as well as the bravely unhinged performances, but please don't make me sit through it again. And if you see it yourself, go in with the mindset that you will not understand what you are watching, and that this is intentional. Then you won't be disappointed.

I'm infinitely grateful that these types of art movies can still get financed and released, but I think I prefer Mr. Lynch's less abstract work, or at least the films for which some sort of narrative structure can be applied.

Learn more about it.

::: posted by dan at 5:17 PM :: #

Gone Baby Gone

Why I saw it: Because I wanted to hate Ben Affleck even more than I already do.

What I think about it: Surprisingly, Ben Affleck seems to be a better director than I would have ever imagined. I tend to dislike Ben very much, and I've been known to compare his acting abilities to a number of inanimate objects. But I have to give him credit: Gone Baby Gone is an intriguing mystery/drama with appropriately subtle acting, a brooding tone, and an interesting moral viewpoint. It didn't exactly fool me at all, as its twists and turns were fairly predictable and overly foreshadowed, but it did offer a few exciting surprises and some nicely built tension, and the final denouement was sincerely thought-provoking. On the surface, it's about a kidnapping in a Bostonian town, but underneath all of that it's about how idealism and altruism can create difficult choices that may even be morally suspect. That's an impressive amount of heady material to pack into a modern day thriller if you ask me, so kudos to the man who did it.

Learn more about it.

::: posted by dan at 5:05 PM :: #

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Why I saw it: I was on a plane, and I wanted to see the Oscar Nominated performance.

What I think about it: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is long, slow ("deliberately paced" is what they usually call it in the biz) and perhaps overly maudlin, but it still barely held my attention for almost three solid hours. This story about Jesse James and his relationship with his eventual assassin is interesting because it tells the story of the infamous outlaw without any flash or embellishment, and with utter lack of gun powder. I appreciated the direction and most of the acting (Casey Affleck was indeed impressive, but Brad Pitt seemed terribly miscast), and when all was said and done it actually had something interesting to say about the consequences of what it takes to be infamous. I think they could have accomplished the same thing in half the time, though. The editor of this picture gets an F, regardless of the fact that I don't regret my subsequent sore backside from the three hour run time. But to be fair, I was on a plane and had nowhere else to go.

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::: posted by dan at 4:57 PM :: #

Planet Terror

Why I saw it: I loved the Tarantino contribution to the Grindhouse double feature, so I wanted to see the other half.

What I think about it: It turns out I'm not that big a fan of Robert Rodriguez movies after all. I think I mistake my admiration for his kinetic shooting style and unbridled enthusiasm for actual appreciation of the resulting film. Because when I think back on it, there's not much in his catalog that I would ever care to see again. I found Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico to be infinitely cool in some aspects, yet infinitely lacking in others. The Spy Kids movies are throwaways. Sin City was a pointless, nihilistic exercise in style. From Dusk Til Dawn was close to being good, but somehow it didn't take itself seriously enough. I think the only thing he ever did that I honestly liked was his "The Misbehaviors" segment from Four Rooms, and that's because it's short length better suited its subject matter. Basically, I've realized he's all flash and little substance.

Planet Terror is the same: juvenile humor, gory action, and an utter lack of logic aimed straight at its core audience - sex and violence obsessed male teenagers. I understand it's supposed to be schlocky, and there are some truly inspired moments (the boy with the gun in the car and the "missing reel" segments come to mind), but when all is said and done it basically collapses under its own lack of weight, and suffers from being more akin to watching a car wreck than watching actual entertainment.

I'd like to see what Rodriguez could do with a serious story, without cartoon characters and cliches. Basically, I'd like to see if he can stop making movies like he's still a hormone-crazy teenager who found his dad's digital camera hidden in the closet. I'd like to see if he could grow up for once.

Learn more about it.

::: posted by dan at 4:28 PM :: #

Sunday, January 20, 2008 :::

There Will Be Blood

Why I saw it: PT Anderson.

What I think about it: It's really impossible to talk about this astonishing movie without gushing or seeming glib. It truly is an amazingly deep and profound work that creates a character study out of its various personifications of greed. It brutally examines and tries to illuminate just how far different people, in entirely different positions of society, will go in pursuit of meaningless success and power. Based around a turn-of-the-last-century oil man and his relentless quest for money and success, the movie becomes a brilliantly effective allegory for the madness and uselessness of good old-fashioned American capitalist greed in the twentieth century, regardless of whether that was its intention or not. It's a movie with incredibly lofty aspirations, and surprisingly it succeeds at meeting and exceeding those aspirations on all levels. The relentless plot and bleak foreboding are spellbinding, and the incredible technical feats of the filmmaking itself are too numerous to mention. Even the soundtrack (which seems to steal heavily from Kubrick - especially The Shining) seems revolutionary in how it is used.

It's not exactly fun to watch, though. It's harsh, brutal, and unswerving. The ending, which might confound some people, is inevitable and appropriate, although staggeringly bleak and depressing. I'd give the movie five stars if it didn't make me want to slit my wrists.

Regardless, it's really an incredible movie, but those who like to go to the movies for escapist entertainment best look elsewhere.

Learn more about it.

::: posted by dan at 4:32 PM :: #


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The Happening
Burn After Reading
Tropic Thunder
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Sweeney Todd
The Darjeerling Limited
Southland Tales
Sex and the City
Feast of Love
The Mist

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